How the pandemic has reshaped my perception of that first live experience with the Zep legend.
Come Father’s Day, it will be two years since I finally witnessed a live performance by one of my all-time favorite singers—the mighty Robert Plant. Sure, I’d watched The Song Remains the Same, the 1985 Live Aid broadcast, the 2003 double-disc, and plenty of other Zep footage, but I’d never seen him in person. It was a hot, humid outdoor gig at Chicago’s Millennium Park near the shores of Lake Michigan, and—even pushing 70—Plant was incredible: Soulful and impressively on-pitch, he walked the stage completely at-ease with his legacy, mostly letting the music do the speaking, but also periodically dispensing warm, dry wit and paying tribute to blues artists of yore that he, Page, Jones, and Bonham borrowed so liberally from. His band the Sensational Space Shifters (with guitarists Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson) sounded fantastic, too.
What surprised me, though, was that—as great as the band grooved and wailed on everything from Zep classics like “Four Sticks,” “What Is and What Should Never Be,” “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Gallows Pole” to Plant’s ’80s breakout solo hit “In the Mood” and Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die”—the tune that struck me most was the title track from Plant’s then-new solo album, Carry Fire.
It’s not hard to fathom why newer material might’ve inspired Plant and the Space Shifters more than decades-old numbers they’ve performed a zillion times—especially since the tune meant enough to them to also become the album name. But it is notable that “Carry Fire” struck me harder than so many wonderfully executed soundtrack songs from my youth, particularly since, prior to the show, the song hadn’t meant a whole lot to me. From the outset, the nearly 8-minute epic—with the building intensity of its Middle Eastern-flavored, oud-like lines, hypnotic drums, subtly propelling bass line, and dueling violin-and-Tele Deluxe leads (not to mention the mesmerizing light show)—was captivating, moving. And the intimate, confessional lyrics lent an air of longing and mystery. Now, in 2020—after more than three months of coronavirus lockdown, social distancing, etc.—they take on a different, more poignant meaning … at least for the short term.
I sit and wait for you / Like so many others do / Just like they do for me / Well so I do for you / I'd carry fire for you / Here in my naked hands / I’d bare my heart to you / If you will understand … I'm reaching out for you / Across the broken gate / I feel the gathering years / Beyond these lonely wastes….
As I write this, nations, states, and communities around the world are in various states of easing restrictions on work and social life as COVID-19 fatigue sets in, and with mixed results and feelings by citizens, too. Scientific consensus tells us there is still very real danger to our physical health, though there is reportedly some slow medical progress being made on vaccines and treatments. Regardless, pretty much everyone is suffering through some of the most trying circumstances of our lives—and on so many different levels: economically, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
We’re all “used to” this shitty new facet of existence, even if we land at different points on the spectrum of total life impact, vulnerability, and anxiety. I have no magic answers or big insights to offer. Like most of you, I’m a bit worn down, but grateful I haven’t lost any loved ones to this pandemic, grateful I still have a job, and grateful to still be able to escape some of the shittiness of pandemic life with help from my family, my guitars, and the home-recording projects I’m working on with my band.
The best I can say is that I will continue to carry fire for them—for my wife, kids, siblings, friends, and music. And for you, my friends in guitar. I will continue to bare my heart to you in this space each month (with some ridiculous nonsense mixed in, too, of course). I’ll keep reaching out for you, across the broken gate, beyond these lonely wastes. We will get through this.Be well and remember to take care of yourselves, friends.